The Department of Veterans Affairs on Thursday refused to release documents that might explain why at least one high-ranking VA official was exonerated after agency investigators initially named him as participating in a wide-ranging scheme at its Temple campus to defraud the VA and take advantage of vulnerable veterans.
Two weeks ago, an American-Statesman report detailed the preliminary results of an internal administrative board’s investigation, which found years of mistreatment of veterans undergoing substance abuse treatment. The abuse included forcing the veterans to work at the homes of VA officials, and an attempt to profit from fraudulent purchase orders and questionable contracts.
At least one employee, VA motor pool supervisor Oarrin Nash, was fired as a result of the board’s report, which called for administrative action against half dozen employees. In an interview with the Statesman, Nash denied any wrongdoing and said he had no knowledge of illicit financial activities.
Investigators also concluded that VA Police Chief Thomas Carnes had intimidated veterans who testified as part of the inquiry, and that he was one of the bosses who had received personal labor from struggling veterans enrolled in a work program designed to give them the skills and confidence needed to find work in the outside world. The VA maintains its own police force.
But Central Texas VA Director Christopher Sandles, who initiated the investigation after being appointed to the region’s top position earlier this year, told the Statesman that a final version of the board’s report, which featured additional interviews with witnesses, cleared Carnes.
In an email to VA employees in advance of the Statesman’s story, Sandles said the draft report’s conclusions were “substantively changed” in the final version.
The newspaper requested the final version of the internal investigation through the Freedom of Information Act in October. But in a letter denying the request, VA privacy officials said release of the report would interfere with an ongoing investigation by the VA’s Office of Inspector General, which could result in criminal charges.
Those investigators are believed to be looking into the report’s findings that employees at the motor pool had funneled business to a small Killeen firm that the administrative board said made at least $400,000 by padding purchases with 30 percent surcharges. In all, the preliminary report found, more than $1.3 million was “funneled through” the business, Whitetail Industrial Parts and Service, in recent years.
Following the Statesman’s initial story, U.S. Rep. John Carter, the Round Rock Republican who represents the Temple area, demanded the VA send him copy of a “comprehensive final report” on the situation in Temple and give him a full briefing on “the VA’s plan of action to right the wrongs done to our veterans.”
The congressman is scheduled to meet with Sandles on Friday, according to his office.
Veterans in the Temple VA’s Compensated Work Program told investigators that they were verbally abused for years while working at the VA motor pool and grounds crew, and detailed frequent theft of VA equipment and being dispatched to the homes of VA officials to perform yard work. Several said they cleaned and repaired the personal vehicles of VA bosses and their family members.
One veteran told investigators the employees in the motor pool were “like the mafia.” “Just their way of covering stuff up for each other. This has been going for six, seven, eight years and nothin’ ever done about it,” the man said, according to the board’s report.
The manager of the Temple VA’s vocational program said that many veterans suffered relapses or left the program after their experiences at the motor pool and said that nearly 50 complaints about Nash over a decade were ignored by his supervisors.
What We Reported
The American-Statesman reported two weeks ago on a wide-ranging investigation into accusations of corruption and intimidation at the Department of Veterans Affairs campus in Temple. In a 70-page preliminary report obtained by the Statesman, investigators detailed years of abuse of veterans undergoing substance abuse treatment, as well a “complex scheme” to profit from fraudulent purchase orders and questionable contracts.